Strength in Numbers

(This column was first published in the March 5, 2001 Buffalo News.)

     For some time now I have been a fan of Gilbert Waldbauer. I have enjoyed reading his popular accounts of the unusual lives of invertebrates in Insects Through the Seasons, The Birder's Bug Book and most recently Millions of Monarchs and Bunches of Beetles, all published by Harvard University Press. In fact, I find that he gets better each time he writes. That last book, with its descriptive subtitle How Insects Find Strength in Numbers, holds an honored place in my home on the same shelf with books by other outstanding nature writers -- John Burroughs, Howard Ensign Evans, Henri Fabre, Sue Hubbell, John McPhee, David Quamman and Ernest Thompson Seton.

     In Waldbauer's writing he brings to bear a special talent. He is an academic himself, now retired from his role as professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, so he knows the professional literature. His colleagues (and, of course, Waldbauer himself) investigate insects and other invertebrates and write about their findings in the abstruse language required (unfortunately) in reports suitable for professional journals, but then Waldbauer translates those often dry-as-dust research papers into delightful prose.

     Here is just one slightly edited example of his writing:

     "How crucial the ability to affect the microclimate is for insects was made startlingly clear to William Wellington when he observed the sudden, life-saving escape of a large group of western tent caterpillars to their silken shelter at the approach of a cold front. The caterpillars had been peacefully munching on the leaves of a red alder tree, when suddenly -- in the space of just a few seconds -- all of them turned and rushed back to their tent. In less than a minute, all the caterpillars of the colony were inside the tent. It had been a veritable stampede compared to the leisurely nose-to-tail procession in which these tent caterpillars usually return to their shelter after they have finished feeding. Furthermore, the caterpillars usually gather for a while on the outer surface of the tent before entering. This time they sped into the tent without dawdling for a moment.

     "Wellington and his assistants had placed sensors that are responsive to slight changes in temperature and moisture level in the air, on leaves, on twigs, and on the tent itself. The recordings from these sensors showed no changes prior to the caterpillars' stampede, and Wellington was about to conclude that a change in the weather had not precipitated their hurried departure. But a few moments later, all of the sensors showed a sharp drop in temperature, and soon thereafter it became obvious that a cold front had arrived. How the caterpillars detected this change in the weather so early remains a mystery. Nevertheless, they had gained the safety of their tent well before the cold front arrived. There they were protected from the ensuing wind and rain and were snugly warm, because the walls of the tent slowed the loss of heat from its interior."

     Even his parenthetical remarks are interesting. He tells us: "Wasps make paper by combining wood fibers with their saliva. It is said that the Chinese, the first people to make paper, learned the process by watching wasps."

     And he translates findings into lessons. He explains why releasing carnivorous ladybird beetles in your garden to prey on aphids doesn't work -- the beetles are internally programmed to fly several miles before feeding.

     Now we have an opportunity to meet this wonderful storyteller. Professor Waldbauer will speak at the Buffalo Museum of Science at 3:00 p.m. this Sunday, March 11 on "Marvels of Insect Mimicry: Deception, Defense and Bluffing."-- Gerry Rising